Category: Constitution
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Leonard Swidler Footnote

Editor's note: This lecture was persented at "A new Church is possible -- INTERNATIONAL MEETING ON RENEWAL OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH," 19 - 22 September 2002, Universidad Carlos III, Leganés (Madrid, Spain), organised by Corriente Somos Iglesia.

I. History of and Mandate for Democracy–a Constitution–in the Catholic Church

a) A Papal Mandate

Set up a Constitution–not just for civil states, not just for some parishes and dioceses, not just for Catholic lay organizations, or for the laity as such–but for the whole Catholic Church! Those were the instructions of Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and he set up an International Commission to begin that process. The Commission worked for fourteen years and produced several drafts of what it called the Lex Fundamentalis Ecclesiae, the “Fundamental Law of the Church,” or Constitution. Unfortunately, it was decided in 1980 not to promulgate it. 

We need to take up that papal mandate to draft and put into practice the dream and wish of Pope Paul VI, for it is also our dream and our wish: Namely, to create and put into practice, at every level, a whole series of Constitutions for the Catholic Church! 

b) Democratic Structures in Catholic History

Constitutions and democratic structures are not something new or strange to the Catholic Church. In very many ways, throughout much of its history the Catholic Church has been a kind of “Limited Democracy.” We learned in primary school that the Greek word for “people” is Demos and the Greek word for “rule” is Kratia, and from those two words we derive the term “Democracy,” the “Rule by the People.” After more than two centuries of civil experience we are comfortable with the idea that the “People Should Rule” in civil society. But, how do we know that the “People Should Rule” in the Catholic Church? 

We know first, from Scriptures: Because all people are made in “God’s image” (Gen 1:26), “knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:25). Second, from Tradition: Recently the Pope together with all the bishops proclaimed that, “All [Catholics] are led to..., wherever necessary, undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform,” and insisted that allCatholics’ “primary duty is to make an honest and careful appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and achieved in the Catholic household itself” (Vatican Council II, “Decree on Ecumenism”). This was a continuation of the tradition from the very beginning of the Christian Church when all the faithful gathered together to choose a successor to the Apostle Judas (Acts 1:15-26). Two other 1st-century documents confirm this approach: “You [the Faithful] must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons.” (Didache, 15:1-2); bishops should be chosen “with the consent of the whole Church.” (1 Clement, 44,5). 

This practice passed into the post-Apostolic period, as evidenced by one of the oldest known synods (already in the 2nd century) that all the faithful participated in early synods: “For this reason believers in Asia often assembled in many Asian localities, examined the new doctrines, and condemned the heresy” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (PG 20, 468). St. Cyprian (3rd century) bore witness to the custom of the people having the right not only to elect, but also to reject and even recall bishops: “The people themselves most especially have the power to chose worthy bishops or to reject unworthy ones” (Epistle, 67, 3, CSEL, 3.2.737). Following the old Roman principle, “Whatever affects everyone must be decided upon by everyone,” St. Cyprian very often convoked synods: “Concilio frequenter acto” (Epistle xxvi), and wrote to his priests and deacons: “From the beginning of my episcopate I have been determined to undertake nothing on my own private judgment without consulting you and gaining the assent of the people” (PL 4, 234).

Every Catholic schoolgirl and schoolboy knows the stories of the elections of St. Ambrose as bishop of Milan and St. Augustine bishop of Hippo (4th and 5th centuries) by the acclamation of the people: “Nos elegimus eum!” “We elect him!” A little later Pope St. Celestine (d. 432 A.D.) said: “No one is given the episcopate uninvited. The consent and desire of the clerics, the people, and leadership are required” (Epistle, iv, 5; PL, 50, 431). That redoubtable Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461 A.D.), who faced down Attila the Hun and saved Rome from the sack, wrote: “Let him who will stand before all be elected by all” (Epistle, x, 4; PL, 54, 634).

These principles from the early centuries of Christian practice were reiterated in various synods until as late as the Council of Paris in 829 A.D. Basically the election of bishops by the clergy and people remained in effect until the 12th century–over half the present span of Christianity. In addition, the first seven Ecumenical Councils, which set all the basic Christian doctrines, were all convoked, presided over, and promulgated, not by popes or bishops or even clerics, but by laymen and–shocking!–a lay woman! Further, every single Catholic religious order of priests, sisters, or brothers, have from their beginnings with St. Benedict in the sixth century governed themselves by Constitutions! which include the election of leaders, limited term of office, due process of law....–all democratic structures centuries before the American Constitution.

c) Democracy at the Beginning of the American Catholic Church

Even at the beginning of the United States of America, our first bishop, John Carroll (1735-1815), and his two coadjutor bishops were, with the full approval of Rome, elected at least by all of the priests of the U.S.; Carroll then proposed a similar election of all subsequent bishops in America - only to be blocked by Rome. One of Carroll’s greatest successors, John England, Bishop of the Carolinas 1820-1840, governed his diocese with a Constitution, which the entire diocese approved before it took effect; following his Constitution, he held an Annual Diocesan Convention, at which he gave a full accounting of all activities, including the finances (Leonard Swidler, Toward a Catholic Constitution, 118-25). 

d) The Contemporary Magisterium supports Democracy

Then perhaps unconsciously following Bishop England’s example, Pope Paul VI called for a Catholic Constitution, a Lex Fundamentalis Ecclesiae. He went further in 1967 and 71, stating: “‘It belongs to the laity, without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiative...infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live.’ Footnote [One of the most important communities we live in is the Catholic Church.] Let each one examine himself, to see what he has done up to now, and what he ought to do. It is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustice and utter prophetic denunciations; these words will lack real weight unless they are accompanied for each individual by a livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action.” Footnote Here is a call to action to all of us by the pope himself!

Pope John Paul II continued on this path when he noted that “Democracy...represents a most important topic for the new millennium...[the Church] values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them”Footnote

In brief, then: What the Church needs in the 21st century is a Return to Tradition–of shared rights and responsibilities for all the “People of God,” spelled out in written form for all to see–a Constitution!

II. International Movement for a Catholic Constitution

a) A Discussion Begun–But Only

Flowing from the Second Vatican Council and the call for a Catholic Constitution by Pope Paul VI, is an International Movement for a Catholic Constitution. Such a Constitution will be in the spirit of Jesus’ Gospel of liberation and love and adaptive of the most mature governance principles available at the start of the Third Millennium. Spearheading this Movement is the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC), which in the course of several years and with world-wide collaboration has drawn up a Proposed Catholic Constitution. This Proposed Catholic Constitution has been carefully researched, thought through, drafted and re-drafted numerous times. Nevertheless, it is intended as a Proposed draft to launch a discussion which must range long, wide, and deep before the Constitution will begin to be accepted as an effective instrument to undergird the governance of the whole Catholic Church. 

This discussion needs to include the experience and wisdom of groups such as canon lawyers, theologians, church historians, pastors, bishops, popes, constitutional lawyers, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, educators, business people, etc., as well as parents, young persons, older persons, women, men–in short, all categories of the members of the Catholic Church. We also need to learn from the experience of other churches which have developed various forms of responsibility-sharing, democratic structures in their own governance; we will want to learn by their positive and negative experiences.

b) A Change of Catholic Consciousness Needed

Perhaps the most important change that must be brought about to make a Catholic Constitution a reality is a change in the consciousness, mentality, of Catholics–laity and clergy. Our Catholic tradition and community must be experienced as a living source of how to make life meaningful and vital–how to make it whole, (w)holy, as something liberating for which we mature Christians feel a reciprocal sense of responsibility. This includes an adult sharing in claiming rights and accepting responsibilities, in short, a sharing in democracy–in a Constitution. If the seemingly endless present sexual abuse scandal has taught us anything, it is that we can allow no more secrecy, no more closed-door decisions about where our money goes, about who gets appointed to what positions, about who appoints them. We need the governance of law (and I don’t mean Cardinal Law), and that means the laws have to be written down for all to see and know, and there have to be procedures to make certain that the laws are followed. In other words, we are talking about what? About a Constitution!

III. What To Do–Now!

a) Learn About and Spread the Idea of Catholic Democracy and a Constitution

Therefore I urge the following:

1. That each of you, and through you, all the Catholic organizations and groups you have contact with, engage in serious study, deep reflection, thorough discussion, and eventual action on the idea, principles and specifics of Catholic responsibility-sharing, of a democratic Catholicism, and a Constitution for it.Footnote

2. That you,and all the Catholic organizations and groups you are involved with, use every creative means to disseminate and publicize the idea, principles, and specifics of a democratic Catholicism and a Constitution–e.g., through newspaper and periodical articles, newsletters, letters to the editor, lectures, textbooks, homilies, classes, radio and TV broadcasts, e-mail, World Wide Web.

b) But Start Acting Now on the Local Level

However, we cannot just study, reflect and discuss–vital as they are. We need to start to act now on our local levels. Therefore, I urge,

3.That youbegin immediately to work with your pastors to start a process bringing together All elements of the parish to draw up a “parish constitution” by which the parish will be governed.

4. That youbegin immediatelyto work with your bishops to start a process bringing together All elements of the diocese to draw up a “Diocesan Constitution” by which the diocese will be governed. Remember:

          There are no restrictions at all in the 1983 Code of Canon Law concerning setting up Constitutions on the parish and diocesan levels. These actions lie completely in the hands of the local pastor and bishop to initiate–without any permissions needed.

          While it is true that a subsequent pastor or bishop would not have to honor his predecessor’s Constitution, the ball will have been set rolling, and it will be difficult to reverse the momentum. This will be especially true if several parishes and dioceses successfully inaugurate Parish and Diocesan Constitutions. Clearly a successfully drafted and implemented Parish and Diocesan Constitution will have a very positive effect on the parishes in the diocese, and on other dioceses. Pressure for substantive change must come from the bottom upfrom me and you!

c) Start Acting Now on the National Level

5.That you“religious” sisters and brothers use your special charism of a long and intense experience with constitutions, democratic structures, dialogue, and subsidiarity, especially in the profound revision and renewal of structures all your religious societies went through in the years after Vatican II–that you use this charism to help the Universal Church understand that these democratic principles are in deep symbiosis with the liberative goals of Jesus’ “Good News,” and thus expand and deepen our Christianness.

          Hence, each of you and your societies ought to consciously strategize how you and your fellows can make this sharing of your wisdom and experience of democratic structures and spirit in the Church a priority in your apostolate to the Universal Church. Further, each of you and your religious society ought to seek out collaborative groupings with other religious societies–and lay and priestly organizations.

6.That you urge your National Conference of Catholic immediately to start a process of bringing together All elements of the national Catholic Church to draw up a “National Constitution” by which the national Catholic Church will be governed.

7.That youurge the Pope ( ) immediately to start a process of bringing together All elements of the Universal Catholic Church to draw up a “Universal Constitution” by which the Universal Catholic Church will be governed. Footnote

8.That, because of long experience, wenot wait on the leadership of the Vatican, but start today to work together in our “Gathering” (Encuentro–see //This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it./">http://This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) and other Catholic Renewal organizations and individuals to plan a new “General Council” to complete the work of Vatican II and Pope Paul VI’s mandate for a Catholic Constitution.

Paraphrasing that Jew, Jesus of Nazareth: This year in Madrid. “Next year in Rome!”